MILWAUKEE — Mayhoua Moua was six years old when her home country of Laos fell to communism in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in May of 1975.
The Hmong people of Laos had been assisting the Americans in what is now referred to as the Secret War. Moua's father was working as a clerk for the U.S. military during that time, and so when her country fell, her family had to flee.
Moua recalls her uncle calling her father, telling him "to take his family to the airstrip to be airlifted to Thailand for refuge."
When Moua saw images of Afghans trying to leave at the airport in Kabul just a few weeks ago, her memories came flooding back.
"We had heard the cargo planes were coming to pick up as many of the people of the Laos as they can. So at that time my parents took us, the four of us, to the airstrip in the hope that we could get on to the cargo planes," Moua said.
When they arrived, she said there were crowds of people just trying to get on one of the planes.
"Watching Afghanistan, it was just like being there myself. Watching people try to push their way, trying to flee the country for safety purposes. I can still feel it. It was so real... I know the pain, I know the fear, I know how it was," Moua said.
Moua's family did not make it on a plane when trying to flee Laos in 1975. However, they eventually made it to Thailand by car and crossed the river separating the two countries in fishing boats.
Her family lived in three different refugee camps while in Thailand. Then in August of 1976, more than a year after fleeing and after many applications, Moua's family came to the United States.
"We were sponsored by some churches in Webster, South Dakota. That's how we came," she said.
Their arrival was thoroughly documented by local newspapers, many of the clippings her family still has.
"There's an article that captures this young boy raising his hand toward me and I was reaching out to him too," Moua said.
She said despite a persistent feeling of being different, the Webster community was welcoming. But she said she and her family did experience discrimination after moving to the Twin Cities in 1979.
"They think we're here to take away their jobs or their resources. So we faced a lot of racist issues then," Moua said.
Now reflecting on her own experience, Moua has a unique perspective, understanding the position many Afghan refugees find themselves in today.
"It doesn't matter what background you come from. When you become refugees, you become nothing. You take what you can, and most of the time it's whatever you had on. You just have to pick up and flee," Moua said.
Today she sees the Afghan refugees arriving at Fort McCoy and other military bases across the country as no different than her fellow Hmong refugees.
"A lot of immigrants and refugees have a lot to offer, if we give them the chance to do what they need to do to survive. And if we can just give them a helping hand to adjust," she said.
Moua is now the executive director at the Milwaukee Consortium for Hmong Health, helping her community reduce barriers and increase access to healthcare.